Tue Jul 17 05:00:18 EDT 2012

how to pass the washington state driver's test on your second try

I've been spending a lot time recently negotiating various state agencies to acquire licenses, and I figured I would write up what I did, because this is a goddamn blog.

Electrician's License

This was more or less easy. I have a weirdo subtype: Nonresidential lighting maintenance and lighting retrofit (7A). Getting this required two years of on-the-job experience, having the supervising electrician witness that I had that experience on a form, getting that form notarized, paying a fee, and then taking two tests.

In the United States, all the states have been bullied into adopting a uniform electrical code, imaginatively titled the National Electrical Code. Every couple years it is updated to phase out certain old practices of electrical work, and institute new safety methods. The individual states often lag by a year or two when adopting: the latest version is NEC 2011, but Washington is still on NEC 2008, for various amusing political reasons.

One of those is money. The NEC, despite being, essentially, law; is actually produced by a for-profit industry association, which means the code will cost you money, and not a small amount of it: NEC 2011 costs $75. Perniciously, when a state updates to the latest version of the code, every single electrician in the state has to buy a new copy, and take various courses on the updated rules. The perverse incentive for the NFPA is to issue updates as often as possible, to extract the maximum amount of rent from their legal monopoly.

The licensing tests are open-book, but I didn't want to give the NFPA my money, so I pirated a PDF copy of NEC 2008, and studied that.

That's the first test. The second test is on 19.28 RCW, the Washington State law governing electrical work.

Both of these tests are administered by PSI Exams, a company that apparently exists solely for state governments to outsource test administration to. Presumably there's all sorts of kickbacks and bribe-taking involved here too, I didn't really want to dig too deeply.

So. I paid my fees, scheduled the test, and studied the Law. Finally, the big day came. I took the test, and passed the NEC portion, but failed the RCW portion.

The proctor printed out the sad evidence of my laziness and incompetence, and handed it to me. I looked at the paper, read it, then instantly forgot the information.

This was one of the most egregious failures of rationality in my adult life, so listen carefully: Somehow, after all that, I became convinced that I had failed the NEC portion, not the RCW.

This is partially explainable by the fact that the NEC part had pitched a couple slowballs over the plate regarding wire marking trivia. These would have been really, really easy to answer if I had a paper copy of the NEC with me... but I was trying to save money! Whoops. So I got those wrong, but still passed the test. My failure haunted me, somehow metastasizing in my head to "I flunked the entire test".


There's a waiting period before you can retake the test. In the time I purchased a physical copy of NEC 2008, and studied the heck out of it. I show up for the retest, code in hand, ready to trounce this test. I sit down at the computer... and the test is for 19.28 RCW.

I am confused. I complete the test, easily passing it. (It picked a different random set of questions, ones I knew the answers to this time, apparently.)

I pick up my book, walk out of the testing room, and tell the proctor that there is A Problem. I've been given the wrong test! I am absolutely, unshakably certain that I had failed the NEC part the first time, not the RCW part. A Mistake Has Been Made.

The proctor is not having a good day. To be precise, she is not having a good first day on the job. She is not familiar with PSI's computer system, but figures out that I had taken the test that had been assigned to me. She calls PSI technical support (for apparently, the fifth time that day) and we investigate. The conclusion is reached that everything is working fine.

I am still not convinced, but this is obviously not the place to resolve it. (The PSI testing center is a single, two-room office suite in a office park in a Seattle suburb) I'm holding things up for other people who actually took the right test, so I drive home, dreading what is obviously going to be a couple hours of phone hell, navigating the bowels of a giant bureaucracy to correct a weird computer error. This is going to really, really suck.

I get home, open a beer, and spend 10 minutes on hold. I finally get a rep, tell her my name, social security number, blood type, and secret fear; she accesses my file, and tells me that I've passed both tests. I am now a 7A licensed electrician.




I thank her. I hang up. I feel like biggest idiot in the entire world, the dumbest man who has ever, or will ever, live.

So that's how I got my electrician's license. How I got my driver's license is similar in the broad strokes.

Driver's license.

In Washington state, if you're over 18, all you need to get a learner's permit is to pass a knowledge test, and pass a simple eye exam. I spend half an hour waiting for my number, while watching a lot of alarmingly old people renew their driver's licenses.

I pass the knowledge test with ease, (It's taken on a computer, which uses a CRT-based touchscreen! Blast from the past.) and receive my learner's permit on April 3rd, 2012.

I don't know much about learning to drive, but I've read a little about learning how to fly, so I keep a logbook.

Over the next month, I rack up 269.35 miles, and a number of hours that I really don't want to go through and add up, watch the instructional videos produced by the DoL, until finally I decide that I'm ready to take the test. It is scheduled for May 14th, 2012.

This is what it looks like when you fail a driving test. I got a 78/100, the passing score is 80/100.


"So, have you ever conducted a test where the guy hit someone?"

"I can't answer that."


So how did I fail the driving test? It's easy: during the test, a specific phrase is used. It is, "rejoin traffic."

When I took the test, it was a beautiful, sunny summer day. 70F, not a cloud in the sky. Driving tests are (almost always) conducted on empty side streets, since of course this is a driving test, and the driver may fuck up.

The street is empty. The proctor says, "rejoin traffic". I glance into a mirror and, duh, see nobody, so I just drive into the street.

No! Wrong! You're supposed to be pretending that there is traffic. They are looking for three specific things:

  1. Checks mirror.
  2. Physically turns around and checks blind spot.
  3. Turns on turn signal.

If you miss any of those, you lose the maximum 4 points on that test, failing the section entirely. Do that often enough, and you fail the test.

Don't do that. Perform those three actions. Even better: say them out loud ("Mirror, blind spot, turn signal") Driving instructors like to be talked to, they want to hear you thinking through things. I also repeated instructions back to them, ("Turn left at the upcoming intersection" "Turning left, roger") which you probably don't have to do, but they didn't seem to mind.

I passed parallel parking perfectly... except for signaling.

Minor point loss: at a stop sign with a blind corner, you're supposed to come to a complete stop before the white line, creep forward until you have visibility, come to another complete stop, then go.

Something I was warned about by a friend who also recently took the test: the rules for parking on a hill are somewhat esoteric. (You have to point your wheels in a certain direction, depending on circumstance) Study them carefully, or else you'll be dinged the full 4 points on that test.

Note: a perfect score on the driving test means that they'll never touch the scoring form. If they write anything at all, it's because you screwed up, and they're deducting points. (If you ask the instructor what you did wrong, they may or may not answer. I think they're not supposed to, but if it's clear that you're going to pass, they may bend the rules. This means that they won't help you when you actually need it, but oh well.)

There's a couple of commonsense tips:

  • Drive slow. By default, I drive slowly enough to annoy my mother, so that wasn't really an issue, but still.
  • Bring a book to the DMV. Or something, anything. I had to keep myself entertained for a couple hours. Don't be like me. Be smart.
  • Don't argue with the driving instructor. That cannot possibly help. Unless it's a very obvious, and very trivial mistake, ("Your headlights aren't on." "Actually, they are." "Oh.") then disagreeing with them isn't going to end well for you.

Anyway, I passed the test with trivial ease on my second try. Anticlimax ending!

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